Gamecocks beat Virginia on wild finish, will play for the title

Source: (Juan Blas)
Source: (Juan Blas)

by John Whittle

OMAHA, Neb. ( It wouldn't be the College World Series without a South Carolina walk-off. In three of its last four games in Omaha, Neb., the Gamecocks (53-14) registered a walk-off victory, this one thanks to a throwing error. Junior Adam Matthews came around to score on a botched bunt play to give USC a 3-2 victory over Virginia and earn a spot in the national championship series against Florida beginning on Monday.

The South Carolina bullpen gave up the lead after a pair of errors in the top of the eighth inning but, in 13 innings, the Gamecocks came back to outlast the Cavaliers (56-12) in a game that lasted just shy of four hours.

In the bottom of the 13th, after reliever Matt Price worked out of constant trouble for the better part of his 5.2 inning outing, the Gamecocks were finally able to scratch across the run it needed.

"It really has been amazing," a breathless Ray Tanner said following the victory. "I admire these guys and the players we've had the last couple of years. Their work ethic, their desire to play, to win – they show up and go every day."

Senior Brady Thomas led off the inning with a single and Matthews, who entered as a pinch runner, was bunted up to second to begin the bottom of the 13th. Virginia reliever Cody Winiarski's throw to second to try to peg Matthews sailed into center meaning everyone was safe. Senior Robert Beary dropped a sacrifice bunt and, again, Winiarski tried to nail the lead runner.

But for the second time, Winiaski's throw was off the mark and it sailed out of play and Matthews trotted home for the game-winning run giving the Gamecocks 14 straight NCAA Tournament victories, a postseason record.

"So many things happened," Tanner said. "We had our opportunities and they had their opportunities. This game could have gone either way and we just kept hanging in there."

Price moved his record to 7-3 on the season after throwing 5.2 innings of scoreless relief allowing seven hits and five walks. He constantly worked out of trouble but used five strikeouts and a few double play balls to send his team to the national championship series against Florida beginning on Monday.

"More than anything, it's emotionally draining," senior Brady Thomas said. "You put so much into it. You get high and get low. We were able to fight the whole game and come out with a victory."

Virginia head coach Brian O'Connor may not have been playing some gamesmanship being slow to name a starting pitcher. All-American Danny Hultzen was suffering through flu-like symptoms and was throwing up in the dugout before and during the game.

"It was really a mismatch," Tanner said. "Our guys played a little bit and we didn't have an answer. He was that good."

The No. 2 overall pick in the MLB Draft by Seattle didn't show any ill-effects on the mound the first three innings allowing only one hit and striking out eight of the 10 hitters he faced. His team was able to give him an early lead off of USC starter Michael Roth, who allowed a second inning run that was actually earned.

After walking the leadoff hitter of the inning, Steven Proscia, Roth gave up a single through the right side putting runners at the corners. Roth was able to coax a double-play grounder off the bat of Kenny Swab but Proscia came home to score an earned run, the first allowed by USC starter Michael Roth in his last 38.1 innings on the mound.

Even though Hultzen was dominant, he was unable to continue past the third inning. O'Connor pulled him out of the game and the left-hander went back to the locker room for a brief time before rejoining his team. He threw 32 strikes in his 40-pitch outing but didn't throw long enough to qualify for the win.

"His stuff was absolutely dominating," O'Connor said. "My plan coming into the game was for him to have a short stint. Danny was not feeling the best, he was feeling under the weather, and he was gutting it out as much as he could. He was in pretty miserable shape after the first inning."

Left-hander Kyle Crockett entered in the fourth and the South Carolina bats, at least temporarily, came to life. The bases were loaded after Christian Walker lined a one-out double to right, Jackie Bradley Jr. nocked an infield single, and Adrian Morales was hit by a pitch.

Thomas, who was dropped to the six-hole in the batting order for the second straight game, hit a fly ball to left center. Left fielder John Barr had a hard time tracking the ball and it fell right in front of him allowing a pair of runners to score. Crockett got out of the inning without further damage but the Gamecocks posted a 2-1 lead through four.

"We escaped a couple of jams," Tanner said. "They got out of a couple. This game certainly could have gone either way and we just kept hanging around in there and were able to get enough breaks at the end."

In typical Roth fashion, any lead was big enough for him to protect. The Cavaliers were rarely able to threaten after the second inning off the junior, who has plans to leave for Spain in just a couple of weeks on a study abroad program.

Roth left with the lead after seven innings allowing one earned run on four hits, two walks, and one hit batter. He struck out three during his 90-pitch outing but didn't pick up the victory as the Cavaliers were able to tie up the score in the top of the eighth on an unearned run.

Reliever John Taylor got a ground ball to third to begin the eighth inning but Morales' throw to first was high pulling Walker off the bag. After a sacrifice bunt, the Gamecocks called in Price, who coaxed a one-out grounder to Mooney. However, the slick-fielding shortstop, who made SportsCenter's Top 10 on Tuesday, had the ball go right through his legs allowing Chris Taylor to come in and score the game-tying run.

Price was able to get out of the inning with a double play ground ball but the score was tied, thanks in large part to the relief effort of Crocket. He pitched a career high four innings and allowed only one hit after USC's run-scoring fourth inning.

South Carolina blew a big opportunity in the bottom of the eighth inning loading the bases with one down. After a leadoff single by Jake Williams, he made his way to third after a sacrifice bunt, hit by pitch to Wingo, and a free pass to Walker. Bradley Jr., who was making his third start in this College World Series, which are his first appearances since April 23, couldn't catch up to Branden Kline's high fastball.

After Bradley Jr. went down on strikes, Kline got Morales to face the same music as the back-to-back strikeouts ended the inning.

"I thought they were tremendous," O'Connor said of his relievers. "(Crockett) gave us a chance to win in the middle innings. Brandon came in there and was fresh. He just went out there and kept battling."

Both teams had chances with runners on in the ninth inning but both left fielders – Williams for the Gamecocks and Barr for the Cavaliers – made acrobatic, inning-ending catches. Williams ended the top of the inning with a catch in foul territory as he crashed into the trap while Barr ended the bottom of the ninth and saved the game with a diving catch on the foul line.

Price got out of a huge jam in the top of the 10th inning. Barr knocked a one-out single to center and, after a stolen base, three-hole hitter John Hicks was walked. After a pop-out by cleanup hitter Proscia gave Price two outs, the first-team All-SEC performer walked Jared King to load the bases. However, he blew pinch hitter Reed Gragnani away with a 94 mph fastball to end the inning.

"South Carolina has something very, very special going on right now," O'Connor said. "It just seems like they find a way."

Kline, who was masterful in his relief appearance, worked out of another bases loaded jam in the bottom of the 10th. Morales left the bases loaded for the second time in the game when he grounded out to second base, which extended the game by another inning.

The turning point of the game could have been the top of the 12th when Price got out of a bases loaded jam. With one down, Shane Halley, who entered as a defensive replacement, dug into the box for his 13th at-bat this season. His routine ground ball to Mooney was the start of a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play.

"It wasn't pretty but it was Kline and Price toe-to-toe," O'Connor said. "They were pitching with runners in scoring position a lot and neither one was going to give in."

Price left the mound with a big fist pump and a scream of jubilation, which set the stage for potential heroics in the bottom of the 12th inning. Evan Marzilli knocked his first hit of the game and Wingo was hit to put two on with no one out but the heart of the order – Walker, Bradley Jr., and Morales – couldn't even move them.

When Morales fouled out down the right field line, he left eight stranded in the game.

The later the game progressed, the tougher the game became for Price. The bases were loaded with no one out after a single and a couple of infield hits. With the infield drawn in, Price got Taylor to strike out and then Barr to line into an inning-ending double play.

"Price is an outstanding pitcher and they played great defense," O'Connor said. "We squared some balls up, hit some balls right on the nose, and didn't have enough to show for it to get that one more run. We just didn't quite do enough tonight."

Virginia loaded the bases four times from the eighth inning bon but were unable to come away with any runs.

South Carolina will face Florida in the best-of-three championship series beginning on Monday at 8 p.m. on ESPN. The Gamecocks will not practice on Saturday and will take the day off.

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